No one is left out

Today is one of those days that it would be nice to just leave out some parts of Scripture, right? There, I said it. For some of us, these stories about the pain and brokenness of family life are a little bit too real. But we’re not here to escape life—this is where we learn about how life is best lived. God didn’t wait to enter the world as a human until everyone in the world became perfect and we got our lives together and there were no more problems.

And because Jesus lived, that doesn’t mean suffering was ended forever. We live in a world—just as Jesus did—where divorce exists, where suffering happens, where relationships are broken and where families are split apart for many and various reasons. But because we trust in Jesus, we have hope for redemption. So let’s look at the gospel lesson and see what’s going on, because as usual, there is more going on than simply what we see on the surface.

The story begins with a question by the Pharisees, and what they’re asking Jesus is one of the popular line-in-the-sand debate questions of their day. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The law includes the provision for a man to write a certificate of dismissal to divorce his wife, which would allow the woman to be remarried.

This made perfect sense in their Jewish context, since men were the ones who married and women the ones who were married, and a man could divorce his wife while a woman could only be divorced. Women were simply the property or the responsibility of the men in their lives. A Jewish woman could not initiate a divorce; it was the men who made the decisions.

If a woman could not provide a child for a man, he could seek out another woman, and plenty of our heroes of the faith had multiple wives or concubines to produce children—think of Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon. It was seen as an act of kindness and mercy for a man to produce a written certificate of dismissal to divorce his wife, because that would allow her to be remarried, since a woman could not provide for herself but needed to live in a man’s household in order to survive.

Among these religious scholars of the day, some followed a teacher of the law named Rabbi Hillel, who taught that a man could divorce his wife for any reason. Another school of thought following the teaching of Rabbi Shammai allowed for divorce only in the case of adultery. In this story, the Pharisees want to know where Jesus stands, so they ask about the law, but instead of saying yes or no, Jesus answers with another question, about Moses.

Jesus allows that the law about divorce was written on account of human shortcomings, but this is far from the way God created the world. Jesus appeals not to God’s law, but to God’s will, going all the way back to the story of creation. Men and women were created to be helpers to one another—the Hebrew word used in the creation story is kenegdo, which means helper. Elsewhere in Hebrew literature, that same word is used to describe God, as a helper of humanity.

Furthermore, the man and woman who are married become one flesh, and it is God who has joined them together. It is not easy to separate what has been joined together, and where it seems that Jesus allows for divorce, it is certainly presented as less-than-ideal, falling far short of God’s intention for creation. Jesus does not accept the premise that we live in a man’s world. On which day did God create patriarchy, anyway? (I’m not convinced that it was God who invented patriarchy.)

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus continues this conversation with his disciples, taking the law about divorce even further than even the Pharisees would have. Jesus is talking about adultery, and what does that even have to do with divorce? Not all divorce is a result of adultery or infidelity. What’s the big deal about adultery?

First of all, adultery was understood as something only a woman could do against the man to whom she belonged, whether her husband or her father, depending who was responsible for her. If a woman were violated by rape, that’s damage to property—the expectation would be for the rapist to pay the family or the husband of the woman. But if what happens is adultery, that is evidence of the woman’s straying, and the man who is responsible for her—her father if she is unmarried and her husband if she is married—decides what punishment there should be, whether punishment for the woman or for the man also.

For people living in antiquity, adultery is more than damage to property—it is potential damage to the ancestral heritage. For ancient Israel, having legitimate children was the way to assure the continuity of the family, and adultery was seen as an assault on the family line, displeasing the ancestors. Think of all the times the title “Son of…” is used in Hebrew Scripture—it is really important to know who your family is. Marriage and family were the primary means of ensuring economic stability and social privileges, which is why adultery is so threatening.

So if adultery is such a big deal, it’s essential then to understand exactly what constitutes adultery. The law says that a married or engaged woman has committed adultery if she has participated in sexual relations with anyone other than her husband, and it is the husband of that woman who decides the fate of both the woman and her lover: the woman could be dismissed through divorce or both parties could be executed. Now, a married man engaging in sexual relations outside of the marriage covenant—that behavior is criticized and frowned upon, but his actions are not punishable by law.

Jesus recognizes the disparity in this arrangement and equalizes it by holding both parties responsible. Matt Skinner, a professor at Luther Seminary, points out that, for Jesus, women are not passive objects where marriage is concerned, but Jesus gives women a place of equality in the marriage relationship. Holding an adulterous man responsible as having committed adultery against a woman is far different from the understanding that an adulterous man has committed a crime against another man, endangering his property. Jesus says the sin is also against the woman herself—the sin concerns violating the accountability to one’s own partner.

It’s worth noting where this whole conversation with Jesus and his disciples is happening: in a house, a place for a family. And if we’re talking about adultery or divorce, we’re talking about relationships, and how the behavior of men and women affects their families—their children, their parents, as well as their siblings and distant relatives. In the culture of Jesus, and in plenty of cultures around the world right now, marriage is not so much about individuals choosing o